A new report from The Sentencing Project documents a growing wait for parole among eligible inmates serving life terms, citing factors producing longer prison terms for this population. The findings draw on data from 31 states and the federal government. The report says that a variety of policy choices and practices at the state and federal levels have caused recently paroled lifers to serve longer prison terms than their counterparts in the past. In South Carolina, lifers paroled in 2013 had served an average of 27.5 years in prison; those paroled in 1980 had served 11.6 years. In Missouri, time served among paroled lifers increased steadily from 15.0 years in 1991 to 25.2 years in 2014. In eight jurisdictions, the average time served by lifers with murder convictions nearly doubled from 11.6 years for those paroled in the 1980s to 23.2 years for those paroled between 2000 and 2013.
Criminal justice reform has largely excluded people in prison with life sentences, says the report. This growing “lifer” population contributes to the persistence of mass incarceration. Many were sentenced at a time when “life with the possibility of parole” meant a significantly shorter sentence than it has become today. Many remain incarcerated even though they no longer pose a public safety risk, The Sentencing Project contends, saying research has shown that continuing to incarcerate those who have aged out of their crime-prone years is ineffective in promoting public safety. The number of people serving life sentences has more than quadrupled since 1984, a faster rate of growth than the overall prison population. Between 2008 and 2012, as crime rates fell to historic lows and the total prison population contracted, the number of people serving life sentences grew by 12 percent.